Monday, June 29, 2009

London calling

I'm heading to London shortly to attend the Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis Club, better known as the Wimbledon tennis tournament. We'll be there Thursday, Friday and Saturday for the men's semifinals and the women's semis and finals.

With five-time champion Venus Williams, two-time winner Serena Williams and big-serving Andy Roddick still in the hunt, an American or two ought to go deep. In fact, the Williams sisters squared off in the final last year. Meanwhile, Roger Federer is playing for history as he attempts to surpass Pete Sampras' record 14 major titles. On the men's side, that is; Steffi Graf won an eye-popping 22 singles Slams.

With NBC always on the lookout for an American angle, plus the women's final being played this year on July 4th, I'm dutifully bringing a U.S. flag and wearing a red, white and blue tie in a whorish attempt to get on television. Of course, TV silliness aside, it's a huge thrill and privilege to be going.

Incidentally, NBC will broadcast several hours of Wimbledon tennis every day this week, plus a nightly highlight show after late local news. Then they pour on the live coverage of the singles finals on Saturday and Sunday mornings, with maybe some "dubs" thrown in if the singles matches wrap up quickly enough. (There's not nearly enough doubles tennis on TV. It's high-octane stuff at the pro level and one of the best things about attending Grand Slam tournaments. But I digress.) Check local listings.

Not sure how much computer time or access I'll have, so I'll post photos and write here about the Big W either during or after the trip. Cheers, mates!

Just asking

Isn't it odd, all this fighting over the presidential election in a country where a small group of fundamentalist clerics, answerable to no one, holds the true power? The Iranian people have the right to decide who answers to them. It reminds me of the recent Russian election deciding which head to screw onto Vladimir Putin's puppet.

Meanwhile, someone known as the Supreme Leader has offered a running commentary on the election. Something tells me the Supreme Leader never has to face the voters. It's like the Emperor commenting on the election of Darth Vader.

Millions of votes are cast in a hotly contested presidential election, but it's all mooted by a handful of people who get to decide whether the election was proper, and thereby effectively anoint a winner. Good thing that could never happen here.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

In the name of love (pride)

Gay, straight, doesn't matter. The Pride Parade is everyone's favorite all-day party and today is Chicago's 40th annual. My Flavorpill preview is here.


I was momentary puzzled by this recent sub-headline in the Chicago Tribune until I realized they were going for the word "descent."

Friday, June 26, 2009

Memo to ESPN

Go ahead, keep promoting NASCAR telecasts during your live Wimbledon coverage, and get some Wimbledon promos on during the Brickyard 400 while you're at it. I'm sure auto racing fans are as interested in our sport as we are in theirs. (If it is one.)

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

If you C.K.

Has it really been a week since I posted here? It has. I blame the Just For Laughs Chicago comedy festival, which took over my weekend (well, that and the tennis and the poker and the supermodels).

Caught the Louis C.K. show on Friday night, which I previewed for Flavorpill here. Yes, Patrice O'Neal, Nick DiPaolo and Jim Jeffries performed too, but as far as I'm concerned, any show involving Louis C.K. is a Louis C.K. show.

The master at work:

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Visiting royalty

Princess Diana at the Field Museum? Please. Queen Elizabeth in Grant Park? Whatever. Robert Smigel is in town and comedy connoisseurs are rejoicing. Smigel lives at the intersection of smart, funny, dirty, original and outrageous, and nobody does it better.

Casual fans know his Ambiguously Gay Duo and Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. Those with longer memories remember him as Late Night with Conan O'Brien's first head writer and the creative genius behind The Dana Carvey Show. Hardcore fans like myself loved his Comedy Central puppet show, TV Funhouse. But perhaps only his wife knew that he shot a late-nineties pilot for Fox television, a gonzo parody of Bozo's Circus that played less as parody than straight-up homage.

Smigel's here with longtime co-writer Dino Stamatapoulos for the Just For Laughs comedy festival, screening their never-aired Bozo pilot and other old gems, taking audience questions and performing some new material. They're doing two shows; I caught the first one this evening and it was a home run.

The Bozo pilot was fresh and funny throughout (check out Dave Hoekstra's nifty Sun-Times piece on the pilot here) even though one of its best bits was left on the cutting-room floor: a young, unknown Northwestern theater alum named Stephen Colbert as Grimy the Outhouse. It screened after the pilot to more big laughs.

What else did I learn? Much like the Bozo pilot might be deemed an even more obscure version of TV Funhouse, so did Smigel also once devise an even lesser-known Adam West vehicle than Lookwell, the celebrated pilot he and Conan O'Brien actually made starring West as an out-of-touch former actor.

Smigel's other dream West project, one he couldn't persuade a network to fund, was a show starring Adam West as a retired Adam West, but with the sensibilities of his old Batman show. When his agent calls with an offer for a commercial voiceover, West intones, Batman-style, "It's too... perfect." Then, after his fax machine jams up as the offer arrives, West clenches his fist and cries, "George Kennedy!" Cut to a gleeful George Kennedy, fax machine saboteur, shot diagonally like a Batman villain. Who wouldn't watch that show?

Smigel explained that his now-famous puppeteering was inspired by Edgar Bergen, whom he called "the biggest ventriloquist in the 1930s and '40s," and Stamatopoulos called "the only one." Bergen apparently used to perch a young Candace Bergen on one knee and Charlie McCarthy on the other and make them talk to each other. How old was his daughter at the time? "Young enough to be fucked up by it."

As for new bits, Triumph and Smigel just flew into Chicago from the Bonnaroo music festival, where they shot footage for The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien and performed with Bruce Springsteen. They also made the rounds, ridiculing every musician in sight. "So many white rappers these days. The Beastie Boys... Will Smith." And: "Flavor Flav wears a clock around his neck so he knows how far back he's setting the civil rights movement."

Throughout the evening, Triumph had been lying forlornly under Smigel's chair in a purple nylon duffel bag. But after Smigel screened and discussed the more notorious Saturday TV Funhouse cartoons he'd made for Saturday Night Live, including "Conspiracy Theory Rock" and "Michael Jackson 2," Triumph sprang to life, commandeering a makeshift puppet-show proscenium reminiscent of his early Conan days to close the show.

The canine Rickles wasted little time eviscerating everything in sight. Looking around the Lakeshore Theater, a beloved Chicago comedy venue, Triumph sneered, "Look at this place. I haven't seen a shithole this big since Kirstie Alley bent over to pick up a pie." And: "If these walls could talk. There's been more comedians in here than in Sarah Silverman."

It still burns Smigel that Comedy Central renewed Mind of Mencia rather than TV Funhouse. Or so you might have gathered from Triumph's Carlos Mencia-themed faux Wikipedia page, which informed us that Mencia is a "vagina-flavored comedian" who stars in a Comedy Central TV show called What If Dave Chappelle Was Retarded.

Triumph also treated us to the collected Twitter tweets of Oprah Winfrey, who's making everyone read the complete William Shatner TekWar space novel series, not to mention sleeping with everyone's wife, just because she can; John Mayer ("Woke up, had breakfast, went out and sucked for the rest of the day"); George Clooney's penis, which philosophically wonders whether it will be in Darfur today or somewhere less virtuous; and Lindsay Lohan ("Mmmgggllllzzzzhhh"; as Triumph explained, she's limited to 140 characters).

Robert Smigel and Dino Stamatopoulos appear again tomorrow evening at 8:30 at the Lakeshore Theater. My Flavorpill preview is here.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Double play

At least the washout of tonight's Cubs-White Sox game worked out well for someone.

Also scheduled this evening in Wrigleyville was the opening night of the Just For Laughs Chicago comedy festival, a preview screening of Harold Ramis' new comedy Year One.

Shortly after the game was called on account of rain, I was walking through that very rainstorm into the Music Box Theatre for the movie when who walks in behind me but Chicago Cubs television play-by-play man Len Kasper. He'd wasted no time making the half-mile trek from Wrigley Field, still sporting his blue WGN-TV polo shirt as we came in from the rain.

Unfortunately for some of us inside the Music Box, there was also scattered rain falling inside the landmark theater, but nothing we couldn't handle.

Year One

After pretty much conquering the Hollywood comedy scene over the past thirty years, Harold Ramis didn't want to raise his family in Los Angeles, so they moved back to Chicago. He set up shop on the North Shore, where he continues to work on film projects while staking a reasonable claim to the title of coolest suburban parent ever.

I've had the pleasure of crossing Mr. Ramis' path around town on a number of occasions, an Israel Film Festival here, a Second City reunion show there, and always enjoyed him a lot. His wry, brainy delivery in the film world is no accident because that's who he is, a sardonic wiseacre with a lot of heart. He's not only a huge comedic talent but an engaging guy you can't help but like.

At a recent appearance at a local high school's biannual celebration of the arts, Ramis screened the funny opening scene of his new prehistoric comedy Year One, then gave an interactive talk about how he goes about creating a film comedy: the overall point he wants to make, the tone he tries to strike, the actors he might prefer to use for different types of roles, and how to make the whole thing saleable to a movie studio. Kids of all ages were hanging on every word.

Harold Ramis will receive a lifetime achievement award at tonight's special preview screening of Year One at the Music Box Theatre to kick off the weeklong Just For Laughs Chicago comedy festival. My Flavorpill preview is here.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Very funny

I used to hit Aspen, Colorado every March to attend the HBO U.S. Comedy Arts Festival, an annual celebration of the funny in all its forms. It was a highlight of my year, every year.

Back in the prehistoric days before I had a blog, I wrote about the 2007 Aspen festival for the website of my buds in the comedy group Schadenfreude (links to the four installments are here) and chipped in some jokes to the comedy site The Bastion here.

Sadly, all good things must eventually end, and the Aspen festival was no exception; the 2007 go-round was the last one. The reasons for its demise were many, and once I did have a blog I wrote about them here.

The Aspen festival left behind a lesser remnant in something called The Comedy Festival, a November showcase of big-name standups in Las Vegas. Nice enough, but a far cry from the diverse array of sketch, standup, improv, film, panels, special events, reunions, and fresh faces (not to mention mountains) in Aspen, and not worth traveling for.

Enter Just For Laughs, the other 800-pound gorilla on the North American comedy festival scene. Proprietors of an established, successful comedy throwdown in Montreal every July, they're now planning a major expansion of their brand. They'd like to become the premier presenter of live comedy in the U.S. in the way that HBO is known for the best comedy on television.

This summer they're doing a trial run with a few weeklong comedy festivals in cities around the U.S. Chicago gets its turn this week with the Just For Laughs Chicago festival, which looks about a third of the way from Vegas to Aspen in its ambition and range. There's a lot of middle-of-the-road standup from well-known performers, but they've booked some more interesting talent as well. Plus you don't even have to get to Pitkin County, Colorado (although you do have to get to Chicago, jet-setting readership).

I'll be covering the festival this week for Flavorpill and presenting my picks here as the week wears on. But don't wait to hear from me, as tickets are moving fast and many shows will sell out. You can check out the full festival lineup and buy tickets here.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The five-timers club

Long before getting the "Tonight Show" gig, the great Conan O'Brien worked as a doorman at a little-known New York City social organization called the Five-Timers Club:

There are other five-timers around us. Roger Federer, a winner of five straight Wimbledon titles, won the French Open on Sunday. Seated in the front row was another guy who'd won five straight Wimbledons, Bjorn Borg. Federer is also a member of the U.S. Open champions five-timers club along with Pete Sampras and Jimmy Connors.

Speaking of New York five-timers, Broadway legend Angela Lansbury won her fifth Tony Award on Sunday evening, this time for her supporting role in Noel Coward's "Blithe Spirit." I was happy for Ms. Lansbury and for FOBB&B Steve Traxler, who's a producer of the play.

Come to think of it, Steve's getting close to a five-timers club himself, the one for Tony-winning productions. He's won Tonys for "Monty Python's Spamalot" (best musical) and "Glengarry Glen Ross" (best revival of a play), and two of his actors that I can think of offhand have earned Tonys, Jim Norton in "The Seafarer" and now Angela Lansbury.

If Will Ferrell's Broadway debut, "You're Welcome America. A Final Night with George W Bush," hadn't been robbed by "Liza at the Palace" for the special theatrical event Tony, Steve would already have five Tony winners. Or maybe he's already a five-timer with all the hit shows he's produced.

Either way, congratulations to all newly minted and soon-to-be five-timers.

EDIT: Steve is a producer of "Hair," which just won a Tony for best revival of a musical, so he's officially a five-timer. "One, two, three, four, five. You're great!"

EDIT 2: Even under the stricter definition "producer of Tony-winning shows" (as opposed to merely "producer of shows with Tony-winning actors"), Steve is a five-timer. He also produced "The History Boys" and "August: Osage County."

Monday, June 8, 2009


Roger Federer got the job done yesterday, winning his first French Open to become just the sixth man to complete the career Grand Slam. Federer received the Coupe des Mousquetaires trophy from the fifth member of that exclusive club, Andre Agassi. The triumphant yet humble champion graciously addressed an appreciative crowd in fluent English and French. A true world citizen, he speaks five languages and exudes class in all of them.

To some, Federer's victory was diminished because he didn't have to beat four-time defending champion Rafael Nadal en route to his first Roland Garros title. Not to me. Nadal was in the tournament but failed to make it to the final. That's not Federer's fault. He showed up for and won his every match, including a decisive win in the finals over the player who'd beaten Nadal. What more could you ask?

Also, as Federer pointed out in his post-match interview with John McEnroe, he beat Nadal on a clay court a few weeks ago in Madrid. It's not as if he can't play with the guy, even on Nadal's best surface. About the only thing Federer hasn't done is to beat Nadal on a clay court, best three sets out of five. Not having to face the Spaniard en route to the Paris title doesn't diminish the accomplishment one iota.

What a difference a year makes. In last year's French final, Federer managed to win just four games as Nadal gave him a free lesson, or more to the point, a ringing reminder that Roland Garros was Nadal's house. The Spaniard had won the French Open all four times he'd entered. Federer, meanwhile, had lost to Nadal in all four of those years, including in the past three finals.

A month after dismantling Federer at the 2008 French Open, Nadal added insult to injury by snapping Federer's five-year title streak at Wimbledon in an exquisite final. With Federer also having failed to defend his Australian Open title in January (when, to be fair, he had pneumonia), naysayers started questioning whether Federer would ever win another major.

I felt more or less the same way toward these folks as I did in 2002 toward those who bought the president's weak case during the runup to the Iraq war: they were so obviously wrong, but it was pointless to debate them. I insisted to the doubters that Federer still had plenty left in the tank, and that even a Federer who looked about 80% of his insanely great personal best was still good enough to win more major titles.

In the case of the war, it gave me little satisfaction when later events bore out my skepticism. In this case, I'm happy -- not so much that I was right, but happy for Federer. I can't imagine a classier, more deserving champion. Sportsmanlike, generous, and immensely likeable, he's a wonderful ambassador for the sport, for sports in general, for the human race. As for his day job, he does things on a tennis court that no one's ever done. It's a joy and a privilege to watch him play.

Just as Pete Sampras earned sweet vindication by winning the 2002 U.S. Open after over a year of having to endure misguided people telling him to retire, that he shouldn't finish his career the way he wanted to, I'm glad that Federer silenced his silly critics by winning the 2008 U.S. Open, reaching the finals of the Australian Open in January, and now taking his first French Open. Speaking of Sampras, Federer also tied him yesterday with a record 14 men's Grand Slam titles.

The plot thickened today as Nadal pulled out of the Queen's tournament, the most prominent grass-court Wimbledon warmup event. Word out of his camp is that he has a knee problem unrelated to the tendinitis he's been suffering for the past few years. It's not clear whether he'll be able to defend his Wimbledon title.

If Nadal can't play at the All England Club, Federer has to be the huge favorite to start another Wimbledon winning streak. I will be fortunate to attend that tournament this year and I can't imagine a more satisfying experience than to cheer for the great Roger Federer as he continues to make history. He is the very model of a modern major champion.

Thursday, June 4, 2009


Maybe you're good at your job. Heck, maybe you're among the very best. If you are, the world will never know, because there's no real way to quantify excellence among office managers or grocery cashiers.

Professional athletes, however, have the opposite experience. Their entire careers take place on a public stage, held up for scrutiny regardless of their brilliance or medocrity. Plus, their sports are rife with statistics that make their feats easy to compare, even among athletes of different eras.

From time to time, an athlete is so accomplished that you don't even need to look at the numbers to know they're the best in the world. Then you do look at the numbers, and sure enough, they're nothing short of stunning.

Take Rickey Henderson, the Platonic ideal of the baseball leadoff man. Watching Henderson play was a free lesson in how to get on base, advance around the diamond, and score runs; in short, in contributing to a victory. He helped his teams win countless games with his signature "Rickey rally": draw a walk, steal second, steal third, and score on a putout. Net result: no hits, one run scored.

Opposing pitchers and managers didn't need any numbers to tell them this guy was a lethal weapon. Still, Henderson's numbers are as impressive as he was in person. Not only is the iconic ballplayer his sport's all-time leader in stolen bases, he has about 50 percent more steals than the guy in second place. Think about that. No other player in history at the highest professional level has managed more than two-thirds of his total.

That level of excellence is Jordanesque. Throughout Michael Jordan's career, I marveled not only at how outstanding he was, but also at the fact that he was so much better than the other guys on the floor. It was like watching an adult playing with a bunch of kids, and easy to forget that they too were considered the best players in the world.

Rickey Henderson did a lot more than steal bases, by the way. He also set baseball's career marks for walks and runs, and for home runs to lead off a game. That some of his records have since been tarnished, "broken" by a known steroid abuser, does not diminish his many accomplishments.

Now to Roger Federer. The princely Swiss is up to his old tricks, dispatching the field at Roland Garros with his customary elegance.

Federer hits shots that no one has hit before. No one. His mastery is stunning in its completeness, and he does it with a balletic fluidity that makes the formerly impossible look easy. As for comparing eras, Andre Agassi calls Federer the best he's ever played against and John McEnroe pronounces Federer the best player of all time.

Anyone who's watched Federer over the past few years, slashing through his sport like a scythe through a meadow, doesn't need the help of statistics to marvel at his singular ability. Still, here's a quick statistic that neatly summarizes Federer's excellence:

By reaching the semifinals of the 2009 French Open, Federer has now made it to the semis of 20 consecutive Grand Slam tournaments. Twenty! The next-best in this department are two pretty fair players named Rod Laver and Ivan Lendl, who each made ten straight Slam semis.

Like Henderson, Federer has separated himself from a pack that is itself deeply talented and accomplished. And with his personal playgrounds Wimbledon and the U.S. Open up next, he figures to continue his long march unabated.

The Grand Slams, the four major tennis tournaments, are a reasonable measure of ability because, unlike most other events, they draw complete fields of the world's best; at two weeks in length they test endurance and consistency, requiring seven consecutive victories to win a title; and as a group are played on grass, clay and two types of hard court, and thus try the full range of players' skills.

We must also acknowledge Rafael Nadal, the brilliant Spaniard whose shocking loss this week to Robin Soderling ended his remarkable run at the French Open. Nadal had won four straight titles and 31 consecutive matches at the French; in fact, having won it as a teenager in his maiden voyage, he'd never lost there. He's also made inroads against Federer, getting closer and closer at Wimbledon before winning it last year in an epic final.

Speaking of statistical outliers, a high-speed camera recently measured the incredible spin that Nadal puts on the ball. He was found to generate an average of 3200 rotations per minute (to Federer's 2500 and Agassi's 1800) and topped out at an unbelievable 5000.

Nadal's sledgehammer groundstrokes have played a big part in his recent success. By imparting so much spin, he can destroy the ball but keep it in the court, and make opponents hit shots from shoulder height, out of their comfort zone.

That Nadal's Paris streak was snapped in an instant, by a player who'd never contended in a major tournament, only reminds how deep the tour is, and how difficult there to sustain consistent results.

In turn, it only burnishes Federer's greatness. Like Rickey Henderson, Federer is leaving his entire sport far behind, climbing a mountain whose height he keeps redefining.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Don't close the Kitchen

My favorite restaurant in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood has long been the Dixie Kitchen and Bait Shop. I stop by there on most of the rare occasions I'm in that part of town.

Turns out I'm not the only skinny attorney from Chicago who feels this way:

So you'll understand my dismay at the sad news that the Dixie Kitchen will close for business this week.

Its landlord, the University of Chicago, which owns much of the real estate in the neighborhood, apparently can't tolerate the dated vibe of the Harper Court complex that houses the Dixie Kitchen, its sister restaurant the Calypso Cafe, a small artists colony, and other local color. Thus, they're letting all current leases expire and looking for a different -- national, higher-profile, boring -- class of tenant.

It's a shame. The DK is a friendly, welcoming presence in a neighborhood without enough of those. In Hyde Park, a borough shared by haves and have-nots, the Dixie Kitchen has long served as a place where all types can peaceably assemble.

A few months ago a friend and I tried to grab a bite there en route to the Court Theatre, but when we parked my car at the Kitchen, the key got stuck in the ignition in a bizarre incident that ended up costing us the chance to eat there. I drive the automotive equivalent of the dog from Marley and Me, the latest adventure being the five hours it took a series of AAA drivers to repair a flat tire last night, but that is a topic for another day.

Between the lack of closure on my most recent visit and the depressing revelation of their imminent departure, I paid my respects with a final visit on Sunday morning as I was heading south (insert joke here about how I've been heading south a lot longer than that).

The mix of citizenry around me in the DK the other day only confirmed what a loss its closing will be. You had your excitedly pious tourist family asking where President Obama's house was; your African-American couple in their Sunday best, stopping in for a bite to eat after church; your pale, nerdy twentysomething in the University of Chicago Economics T-shirt and his quiet girlfriend, who you just knew at first glance were the two nicest people in the world; your hardscrabble older gentleman who looked as weathered as the Dixie's southern bait-shop decor.

The melting pot was as much a part of the meal as the delicious food, and it will all be missed.

The Dixie Kitchen is open for business until June 7th. Stop by before it's too late. While you're at it, why not call the University of Chicago Office of Community Affairs at (773) 702-6815 and suggest that they reconsider this unfortunate decision.